Why is there such a shortage of qualified women in the U.S. pursuing engineering or other STEM fields?
Research shows women decide to become involved in STEM or related fields very early on, at around one year old to 18 months, when we begin playing with toys. According to studies commissioned by Microsoft, male students are more likely to pursue STEM because they have always enjoyed games and toys that are focused on their chosen subject area.
In North America, adults make decisions about which toys we promote to children. As we do that, we slowly drive girls to think of other fields rather than STEM-related. Much of what we do as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles is subtle, but it is consistent through childhood. Clothes shopping is a great leisure activity, but so is clothes making, especially if it’s for the first human voyage to Mars.
What we can do differently from the start is make engineering and other STEM endeavors an option with the first rattle we hand our girls in the crib. We need to continue by giving girls a really compelling image of their future selves, helping them bring creative energy to fun, problem-solving projects in the classroom and after school. When girls are half as interested as boys in pursuing STEM careers by eighth grade, this leaves us in the workforce situation we find ourselves in today.
One inspiring example is Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, who didn’t even know what engineering was until her high school math teacher suggested she give it a try in college. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in mechanical engineering and product design, Sterling began talking with friends and their children about the toys for young girls and the lack of any toys that introduced them to engineering at a young age.
Like every good entrepreneur she spotted opportunity and was inspired to create the GoldieBlox product line of toys to capture girls’ imagination and natural problem-solving abilities. The product is spot on for girls because Goldie tells a story, solves problems, and makes a difference in the world.
The good news? There is far more opportunity for products like GoldieBlox that acculturate girls differently. While it’s important to capture the interest of girls early by introducing them to engineering and other STEM related prospects, even when older girls and women do pursue STEM careers, the attrition rate is very high. So there is more we can do.
The most common misconception is that people assume you have to master all four areas of STEM to be successful. That’s just not the case. What you do have to do is be enthusiastic about learning and growing as your career evolves.
Of course this means embracing change, and that can be difficult for some people. But the fact is in any field, whatever you learn today is going to be different in a few years and you have to be willing to change and keep learning.
If you’re like Jane Goodall and devote yourself to studying primates, you have an incredibly rich life learning something new at every turn. You love what you do so much, and you make such a difference in the world that you never think about retiring. What could be better than that?
Another misconception about STEM careers is that each of the disciplines that comprise STEM lives in its own silo. There’s an assumption that if you take a science class here, math class later on, then an engineering class, and so on, then you’ll learn how everything is connected. It takes a great educator to integrate a STEM curriculum. The fun really comes from applying the fundamentals you’ve learned and being able to apply them to any new problem that comes up.
Take for example those slingshots that launch T-shirts into the crowd at college basketball games. What if I want to make one that reaches the last row of the upper deck? In math class, I’m attacking the problem using formulas on computers and tablets. But what if I’m more of a visual thinker? Then I go to science class and begin discussing how gravity, wind, and temperature have an effect on the problem, and I do some experiments. In an engineering class I would look at the problem thinking about weight, angles, and the best elastics to use. At this point the connections are made and I’m diving back into my STEM tool box–science, math, and engineering basics. The point is they can’t all live in silos.
Similarly, careers in STEM draw all the tools in the tool box. In my opinion, STEM-based careers give you more options than most career paths because you are not limited to one direct patch. You’re given the fundamentals, skills, and reasoning to solve a problem, whatever that problem may be.
Schools have an essential responsibility to not only educate today’s youth in STEM but to also inspire an interest and passion for it. One of the most important things educators can do is make a connection for students that extends beyond the classroom.
For example, teachers could invite parents in STEM-based professions into the classroom to work with the students, speak about their jobs, or assist with after-school, STEM-related activities. This creates a vested interest between the students, parents and educators.
There’s an exciting program called DIGITS, where engineers go into classrooms with very young students and talk about their work but also share examples from the world of STEM in a fun and easily relatable way–based on a child’s name. For example, if your name is Anna, A is for aerospace, so let’s talk about space ships and farms in outer space. If your name is Natasha, N is for nuclear, so let’s talk about who will create a battery that never runs out of energy.
There are other fantastic organizations like FAB Labs, which started at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms and has expanded around the world by giving everyday people with an idea the technology and tools necessary to design and make almost anything they want. It’s about making fabrication accessible to anyone and enabling anyone to create new things at any age.
I’d tell every child the same advice I told my daughter who is now a fifth-year pharmacy student: Be persistent. STEM careers are not easy. No career worth having is. But they’re fun and exciting.
You need to realize at a very young age that you’re going to make mistakes and fail. It’s all part of the learning curve. You won’t always know or see the right path in solving a problem or in a career path. So you will need to step back every so often and make adjustments.
Above all, be persistent. If you’re persistent, you will be successful.
—Marie Planchard is the Director of Education Community for SolidWorks at Dassault Systemes. She is responsible for global development of curricula and content for SolidWorks’ educational products across all levels of academia.